Landscape Architecture Can Help Save the World

I attended the American Society of Landscape Architects annual conference in New Orleans this past weekend and came away—as I do whenever I spend any amount of time with landscape architects—convinced that the profession is hugely under appreciated. Although their perception might be riddled with cliches and misinformation, the public generally knows what architects do. Not so with landscape architects. Outside of the design and client bubble, they toil in semi-obscurity. When I told a couple of friends I was attending a landscape architecture conference, both of them, after a pause, asked, “What, exactly, do they do again?”


The short answer to them was “they design parks and gardens.” But given the challenge of climate change, rising sea levels, desertification, water scarcity, land and resource allocation, all of the threats to the natural world—the explicit purview of landscape architecture, I would argue—the longer answer should be “help save the world.”


Toward the end of the conference, I attended a panel entitled “Outcomes and What’s Next: The Summit on Landscape Architecture and the Future.” That mouthful of a title doesn’t make sense unless you know the context: In June 1966, six landscape architects, led by the legendary Ian McHarg, drafted and signed in Philadelphia—inside Independence Hall—a one page “Declaration of Concern” about the state of our degraded environment. This was a few years before Earth Day, passage of the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts, and the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency. It was a document that put the profession on the right side of both history and the angels.


Jump cut to 50 years later: on the anniversary of the declaration, the Landscape Architecture Foundation (LAF) and Penn convened a leadership summit on climate change to determine how landscape architecture might help address it. Out of that came ideas for a new declaration. In contrast to the six (male) signatories of the 1966 document, this new one is the product of many minds (many of them female), countless meetings and video conferences, hundreds of emails, multiple drafts, some argument, and a lot of compromise. It is, in other words, a very 21st century document.


Like the McHarg treatise, The New Landscape Declaration is just a single page. It’s a poetic and beautifully written call to action, for a different time and an even greater challenge. During McHarg’s time, our rivers were on fire; today the entire planet is overheating.


So, when Barbara Deutsch, executive director of the LAF, declared, ”This is the era of landscape architecture,” instead of rolling my eyes and thinking: Every professional organization says this! I nodded my head and thought: If it isn’t, it damn well should be!!


I, too, believe that  landscape architects are uniquely qualified to lead the climate charge, for a handful of reasons specific to the profession, and to the problem:


The profession is inherently collaborative. Everyone loves to make this claim today, especially architects, who have not always been known for their ability to play-well-with-others. But because landscape architects are often brought on as subcontractors, because their job straddles so many disciplines and concerns, because they often share design credit with others, they need to be good teammates as well as visionaries. Tackling climate change will be a messy team effort: landscape architects are team players.


The profession’s ability to work across disciplines may have something do with its demographics. Women are well represented in landscape architecture. I may get into trouble for saying this—and I’m not saying that men can’t and don’t collaborate; they can and do. But women, for a whole host of reasons, are simply better at it.


Climate change is causing nature- and land-based problems. This will require us to reconnect with nature, and work at the intersection of ecosystems and the built environment: Landscape architecture’s ultimate sweet spot. A perfect case in point is the Mirabeau Water Garden, in New Orleans, a collaboration with architects (Waggonner & Ball), landscape architects (CARBO Landscape Architects), and engineers (Sherwood Design Engineers). The 25-acre project, located on the site of a former senior center and Montessori pre-school, is not about buildings or overt formal expression (although the designers want to create a pleasant experience), but stormwater management. They’re designing systems, not objects.


And because nature is systemic, landscape architects think holistically. Plunking down a set of buildings on an open site is a time-honored tradition. It’s impossible, however, to manage stormwater for the same site, without also thinking about the surrounding homes and streets, the larger community, the city, even the region.


Connecting to people and natural systems is what landscape architects do. It’s time we start using them.


Featured image via Sasaki Associates. 


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